The Chinese modernization effort of recent years is on so titanic a scale that it is hard to grasp. Can China switch from a command economy to a free market in goods, capital, people, and even ideas? If so, can Party dictatorship survive? A period of railway and city building, typical of the nineteenth century, coincides with a flowering of postindustrial electronic technology. Issues of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West compete with a reappraisal of China’s own values. Change is headlong; China’s development is stretched thin. Wang Yang-ming’s unity of theory and practice, so admired since the sixteenth century, is hard to find. No wonder Deng Xiaoping’s reforms confuse us as well as people in China.
As we emerge from our obsession with the cold war we find it useful to help the development of our erstwhile antagonists Russia and China, much as we found it useful to help German and Japanese reconstruction after World War II. But in China our understanding of the forces at work is confused by the size of the problems and their speed of change. Some sage must have remarked that it is harder to understand friends than enemies, particularly when the friends are pursuing revolution in the name of reform. The four books under review illustrate different kinds of first-person, nonacademic approaches to the Chinese happening. They are short on statistics, long on personal impressions.
Orville Schell’s talent has steadily matured pari passu with the revival of Chinese-American contact since the early 1970s. At first, when China’s intellectuals were still downtrodden and American observers were regarded as intruders, Schell could do little more than exchange furtive generalities in dark corners with alienated riders of mopeds. This enabled him to report on the marginal misfits in a still closed society as in his book “Watch out for the Foreign Guests!” But as Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues began to profit from their experience as victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, they took the path of opening China to the world’s trade and investment as well as to its people and ideas. On his repeated visits to China Schell found more and more friends to talk to. He was able to read the new press and magazines and finally to interview some of the more prominent and influential Chinese about vital issues. Where his earlier books, though always amusing, seemed sometimes superficial, in Discos and Democracy he has gotten inside the Chinese reformer’s situation. The result is first-rate reporting.
Schell’s main characters are three: first, the innovative entrepreneurs who are riding the tidal wave of foreign imports and influences; second, the hard-line Maoists of the old guard who try to save the communist order they built up. Third are the straight-talking critics—mainly writers—who assert the basic truths of the situation as the only possible basis for China’s reconstruction.
After 1978 Deng’s switch to an Open Door policy let in the flood tide of importations—electronic gadgets and other consumer goods, joint ventures of foreign and Chinese firms, Western-trained lawyers, special ports and economic zones where the new international style hotels could meet the foreigners’ special needs and segregate them from Chinese citizens. Schell reports the opening of stock exchanges in the major cities, fashion shows and fancy shops from Paris, and the limo-izing of the capital, which now has 14,000 taxis compared with New York City’s 11,000. He finds that installations to collect tourist dollars do not stop with high-rise hotels and Cadillacs. Near the Ming tombs east of Peking there opened in August 1986 the eighteen-hole, seventy-two-par Beijing International Golf Club managed by the local Changping Country Economic Relations and Trade Corporation and the Japan Golf Association. Ingenuity in the tourist trade knows no bounds. Schell visited the North China International Shooting Academy near Beijing in 1987. Organized under the State Council’s Ministry of Machine Industry, it offered the recreation of firing all sorts of rifles, submachine guns, antiaircraft guns, and even antitank rocket launchers. It was patronized mainly by Japanese, although Japan’s shooting in China fifty years ago had not been for recreation.
After a generation of living with Mao’s slogans “serve the people” and “class struggle,” the Chinese have turned back to the family and private consumerism. This trend has taken odd forms. In 1986 Schell noted that the Fourth National Invitational Body-Building Tournament convened in the Special Economic Zone near Hong Kong. Among 228 competitors, fifty-seven were women. According to the international rules of this new movement, women body builders can wear anything they like in private but must wear only bikinis in public. Three hundred members of the press attended and there was an audience of six thousand persons. The contestants were featured in the pages of a number of new body-building magazines. Meanwhile the craze for disco dancing permeated the cities, and its gyrations tended to leave the more sedate practice of tai chi exercise behind. Schell concludes that Mao destroyed too much:
So culturally enfeebled and idealistically bankrupt had China become as a result of its repeated attack on itself that there was virtually no homegrown force short of massive control and oppression to stand in the way of the unimpeded progress of Western pop phenomena like disco.
China’s absorption of Western pop culture has gone along with the invasion of imported American TV shows and a rapid conversion to advertising. In June 1987 the Beijing ’87 International Advertising and Marketing Congress was held in the Great Hall of the People sponsored by the China National Advertising Association for Foreign Economic Relations and Trade. Top executives from all the advanced countries in the advertising world were among the seven hundred foreign delegates invited. In fact 869 persons accepted even though the registration fee was raised from $950 to $1,680. Western commercials had previously been accepted on Chinese TV under joint venture arrangements between Chinese and American companies. “Whereas in 1980 there had been less than ten staterun Chinese advertising agency offices in all of China, by 1987 there were close to seven thousand.” Advertisements were soon plastered all over the cities, on envelopes, walls, chimneys, trees, buses, boats, trains, planes, and the tops of buildings. Moreover, owing to competition to please the public, public relations departments began to be set up on a vast scale, for example in three hundred factories in Shanghai alone in 1987. PR after all is the Western institutional equivalent of guanxi (connections). Confucianism had in fact been the world’s first PR system. Rediscovered, PR is in China to stay.
This frenetic fad for modernity was accompanied by rampant corruption through personal deals. To get things done, some entrepreneurs made covert payments to officials at every level. One can understand why the hard-line conservative reformers of the Chinese Communist party who had grown up in the Maoist era felt that China was selling out to foreign cultural values that would destroy China’s identity and old-time morality. In the mid-1980s the old guard in the Party mounted campaigns against “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” These campaigns alarmed intellectuals and liberals generally by recalling Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but in the rush of events they petered out. Yet the conservative reformers’ concern must be understood as a basic ingredient in China’s groping for modernity. It was not too long ago that by custom Chinese peasant women when in public walked several paces behind their husbands. The Three Bonds that subordinated women to men, juniors to seniors, and subjects to the emperor had expressed the essence of the imperial Confucianism that fostered the old Chinese social order. The Three Bonds knit the superficial government and the basic village community into a social continuum in which duties were prescribed for all persons in all situations. From this age-old point of view, body-building contests could only be the rough equivalent of, say, mass copulation on the stage of Lincoln Center—far too extreme, not in good taste.
Maoist thought had tried to supplant Confucianism, but now both ideologies were on the defensive. Early in the reform movement Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues tried to hold the line by establishing the Four Cardinal Principles: to support socialism, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the leadership of the Communist party, and Mao’s thought. This was more than a jumble of slogans. To understand the Chinese reformers’ predicament we must accept two large truisms: first, that political power in a democracy may come or be engineered from the bottom up, but in China it still comes from the top down. One obeys one’s superiors. The Chinese Communist party dictatorship is historically the successor to two thousand years of sweet-talking despotism by dynastic ruling families.
The second truism is that power in a democracy may be legitimized by law, but in China it is legitimized by morality. The cardinal principle of upholding Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Tse-tung thought is the historical successor to two thousand years of didactic Confucian teaching. Both Confucius and Mao gave primacy to correctness of thought and attitude, not to due process of law. In China even today adherence to orthodoxy will save the citizen from trouble, but he cannot rely for protection on legal procedure. Immorality is antisocial and should be punished, but unfortunately for the citizen, the reigning orthodoxy can change overnight, and what was moral yesterday may be immoral today. Attorney General Meese’s claim to have been “vindicated” because not actually indicted seems to us outrageous as excessive legalism. It is no more acceptable in America than Mao’s excessive moralism was in China when he punished loyal critics as morally depraved “rightists.”
Schell’s third set of protagonists are the intellectuals who speak out and assert that a state-imposed orthodoxy can only hold China back. Schell devotes considerable space to the sagas of the physicist Fang Lizhi, the investigative reporter Liu Binyan,1 and the iconoclastic essayist Wang Ruowang. These three and a few others have become exemplars of writers and speakers who assert that Marxism and Mao are out of date and have fostered cruelty and injustice. Worse, these critics persist in seeking to put their truth into print. They are protagonists in the old, old drama of the central authority versus the questioning or dissident scholar. One of Liu Binyan’s essays is on “a second kind of loyalty,” suggesting that China needs to recognize the usefulness of a loyal opposition instead of, in Lucian Pye’s phrase, the old “feigned compliance.”2 Ever since the Anti-Rightist movement of 1957 marked Mao’s early attack on the revolutionary leadership, there had been many thousands of cases of moral censure. They reached a height during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. The noteworthy aspect of this confrontation in the 1980s has been the Chinese intellectuals’ disenchantment with the morality of Marxism-Maoism. Maoism had largely shattered Confucianism but now proved backward itself. For a people accustomed to orthodoxy, what could be believed? The slogan of the 1920s, “Science and Democracy,” was revived.
In the winter of 1986–1987 student demonstrations protesting against living and study conditions and lack of “democracy” erupted spontaneously in Shanghai, Peking, and a dozen other cities. Such demonstrations had been symptoms of the terminal illness of earlier regimes. The Party met this outbreak with (comparative) forbearance. The demonstrations subsided without the death of student martyrs. A crackdown followed with the expulsion of Fang, Liu, and Wang from the Party. Yet they were not dismissed from all their posts and continued to appear in public and see friends. The clash within the CCP over the speed of reform was resolved by rebuking the students and the dissonant intellectuals.
At the Thirteenth Party Congress in late 1987 the die-hard conservatives suffered defeat; several leading figures retired or failed to be reelected. The dramatic events surrounding and following the congress are too extensive for summary here, but we may note that Liu Binyan, for one example, is this year a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. To be sure, an ex-Nieman Fellow is now in jail in South Africa. But the present Peking leadership, balanced precariously between Chinese tradition and foreign modernity, is obliged to be more pragmatic than ideological. It has to satisfy a wide spectrum of opinion within Party councils and set limits to public criticism. Yet the trend seems on the whole progressive, toward a new China where the leaders are responsive to press conferences like their counterparts abroad. Schell ends his book on a note of some confidence for the future, in spite of the facts that corruption is more rampant than ever, and intellectuals as a class are grossly underpaid and now feel increasingly threatened by an active inflation. Some of the democratic dissidents of the 1970s, moreover, are still in jail.
The scope and variety of Chinese writers’ and artists’ criticisms of Maoism as well as China’s continuing Communist dictatorship are revealed in Seeds of Fire, an anthology of mainly new translations. The compilers, an Australian and a New Zealander, present about ninety selections under fourteen headings, from the writings of poets, novelists, satirists, film makers, and political prisoners, even including a section on Tibet. Included also are some of the orthodox pronouncements against dissent, well-organized bibliographies in English and Chinese, and a list of principal writers and their whereabouts as of 1987. The subtitle, Chinese Voices of Conscience, suggests the eloquence of these writers and the appalling evidence of their frequent frustration and handicaps to self-expression.
No review can do justice to the vitality and power of these materials. The theory of Chinese personality that emphasizes authority and dependency is well represented. For example,
Paradoxically “collectivism” tends to “under-socialize” the Chinese people…. The Chinese “individual” is organized and motivated by the “other” (if not the “nation” then the “family”)…. From birth, a Chinese person is enclosed by a network of interpersonal relationships…. The whole network of social relationships serves as a womb…. Today…the work unit has become the womb.3
One of the most heart-rending selections is the description by the dissident writer Wei Jingsheng, published in his journal Exploration in March 1979, of the multifarious forms of psychological and physical harassment and torture practiced in the top political prison, Qin Cheng No. 1 north of Peking. Cells “one metre by three,” punishment by limited exercise or by starvation or a bright light, sleep always facing the door, no soap, bathe only once a month—these are only part of a catalog of barbarities.
On Democracy Wall in 1979 Wei advocated human rights and democracy as a “fifth modernization” (the Four Modernizations called for by Deng Xiaoping being of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense). He was arrested, tried, and committed for fifteen years in an application of the traditional technique used by Ch’ing emperors, Yüan Shih-kai, Chiang Kaishek, and Mao in turn—stopping an unwanted movement by decapitation, removing the leaders. The reader wonders how Wei could have gotten this bone-chilling report out of the prison, and then realizes with a start that this was Wei’s Dantesque prevision, compiled from survivors’ accounts of the Cultural Revolution before he himself was jailed. He may still be alive.
Perhaps the reader can be assisted by a bystander’s observations of the Chinese background that puts a dissident and even a loyal critic in a special bind. In a word, the expectations, obligations, and sanctions confronting writers in China are so far different from those confronting an American writer that they should be noted explicitly. Added up, they impose a moral imperative toward conformity that it requires an unusual degree of courage to defy. First of all, the relationship between a writer and the authorities is very delicate. The old Chinese empire sedulously suppressed all criticism of the establishment because in the “benevolent” Confucian way the maintenance of its prestige was one underpinning of government. Even today accusatory headlines that would sound banal in the American press still figure in China as fighting words. They raise the question “Is he for us or against us?” and must be dealt with accordingly. In a government of men more than laws, reputation is critical.
Moreover, this relationship of the writer to officialdom is an umbilical one. Until recently most writers have been supported in government posts, seldom protected by a middle class and its private property. In the old days since scholars and writers were produced in part through the official examination system, they were rightly regarded as appendages of the state, directly subject to its discipline. This idea lingers on and makes the literary person in China extremely political-minded, aware that he writes in a political setting in which his own welfare may be at stake. Dissent and criticism thus require courage. Scholars who spoke the truth to make the emperors understand reality and behave better might not escape disaster. The scholar was thus a sort of tribune of the people, able as a literate man to speak out in their defense. In Seeds of Fire writers portray the inadequacies, evils, and failures in Chinese life today. To call their work muckraking in the American sense puts it rather mildly. Its roots go back to the Confucian idea that he who knows should say so. The Chinese dissident or reformer of today has inherited a social function of the first importance. He feels himself in the center of the scene, by no means divorced from it even though he may be alienated from the regime and its ideas.
Another characteristic of these writings may be suggested rather tentatively—that they are descriptive more than analytic. They depict the failings of human nature but not necessarily the origins of these failings. At the same time they say little about the remedies that might be proposed. The background assumption seems again to stem from Confucianism—the old Chinese idea that while men are born without original sin and are good at heart, they may acquire evil ways if not properly instructed. Social vices such as widespread corruption and disregard of law are thus seen as manifestations of personality. The American reader will find in Seeds of Fire very few answers to the question “What should we do about it?” Where the American might answer “Pass legislation and punish malefactors,” the old Chinese answer would be “Find good men and make them responsible.” In fact the need generally recognized among Chinese intellectuals today is for a growth of political institutions, legislative, electoral, judicial, legal.
Another approach to China’s current transformation is to go and poke about in it, registering one’s personal impressions. First-person travel accounts, naturally limited in scope, give us what truth the writer can offer. David Kidd’s sometimes charming reminiscences recall the Peking so loved by foreign aesthetes before Mao destroyed it. Kidd, age twenty, taught English and studied art in Peking universities between 1946 and 1950, fascinated by the remnants of the old China. Foreigners were still privileged people and as a young man of artistic interests and cultural sensitivity, he was able to get the use of a room at the back gate of the Summer Palace complex, where the Empress Dowager had held sway forty years before.
After 1949 Peking for the moment continued to be a remarkably open society for foreign residents. The communist ideology was just beginning to take hold. Peking Story is romantic. A daughter named Aimee of the once great Yu family picks up David Kidd at the theater, brings him into the ancestral household, and marries him. Sure enough, they escape to America in 1950 and amicably separate as she goes into physics and he takes up the study of Japanese art. Meanwhile Kidd’s insider’s vignettes of life with Aimee’s old aunts and siblings in the old family mansion as it tumbles down are poignantly amusing. When he returns to Peking in 1981 he finds the family survivors living in poverty, still with some sense of dignity. Most of the book first appeared in The New Yorker.
Colin Thubron, a travel writer remarkably skilled at his trade, approaches China very differently. As a young man in the 1960s he wrote about travels and monuments in and about Damascus and Lebanon as well as Jerusalem and Cyprus. But his main preparation for China was a trip of several months driving alone over the main Russian highway system from one official campsite to another, all ticketed and approved in advance by the KGB. He talked to people in Russian and met a great variety of Soviet characters, described in his prize-winning Where Nights Are Longest: Travels by Car Through Western Russia (Random House, 1983).
Thubron’s trip through China, his second, was briefer in time and thinner in the number of contacts. But he was adept at mingling with the local people, traveling fourth class on trains and steerage on boats, eating the local food, trying to think the local thoughts. In this he was aided by having studied Mandarin intensively, so that his spoken Chinese, although it sometimes led him to ask questions whose answers he could not understand, nevertheless indicated his sincerity and allowed him to talk to Chinese whom few other Westerners would have met.
In late 1985, age forty-six, he crisscrosses the country to see special historic sites and push beyond the usual tourist limits. Thus he goes to the place where the Great Wall meets the sea and tramps west on it for several hours. In Shandong province after watching a fine ceremony in honor of Confucius at the refurbished Temple of Confucius at qufu, he visits the deserted Kung family cemetery and finds Confucius’ tomb. Some anti-Confucian enthusiast, however, seems to mislead him, for he writes:
Here are still cave tombs more than two thousand years old in which people who survived beyond the age of sixty used to be buried alive. Sometimes their children went on feeding them by lowering bamboo baskets of food and drink into their graves, sometimes not.
This nonsense is one of the few cases in which Thubron’s common sense seems to lose out.
Mature in years, friendly and self-confident, Thubron picks up people to talk to as he goes along, sometimes patching together his Chinese and their English to discuss real questions. His informants are mainly intellectuals of some sort and the shame and cruelty of the Cultural Revolution keep turning up in their case histories. The bankruptcy of Maoism seems all too complete. When Thubron visits Mao’s birthplace, which used to be a Mecca packed with pilgrims, he finds it almost deserted. In the old farmhouse at Shaoshan the caretaker lets him stay in Mao’s own room and in fact sleep in Mao’s own bed! (He slept poorly.) When he persists in making a similar pilgrimage to Yenan, another ex-Mecca, he is scoffed at. The Yenan Hotel seems like a morgue and the museum exhibits are in decay.
Thubron finds Shanghai “drowned in the ocean of its populace.” He visits the “infamous riverside park” where the notorious sign reading “No dogs or Chinese” is now given the precise date of 1885, a claim deserving further research. From Shanghai he goes by rail to Xiamen (Amoy) and thence by sea in steerage class to Canton. Everywhere he tries to penetrate the ordinary life of the people in the street who are of course less concerned with him than he with them. He takes the reader to historic sites and into beautiful scenery of lakes and mountains. After sailing on the Li River at Guilin he goes ashore for a two-days’ ramble among the mountains and villages. In other places he hires a bicycle for his solitary explorations. The new railway line from Kunming in the southwest to Chengdu in Sichuan province takes him through 427 tunnels and over 653 bridges in the course of a seven-hundred–mile ride. (The line was built during the Cultural Revolution.) From Chungking he goes down the Yangtze Gorges in a five-deck steamer named “The East is Red No. 24.” Finally he goes into the northwest to see the Blue Lake (Koko Nor) and the Buddhist monastery nearby, and last of all reaches the western extremity of the Great Wall at the Jade Gate in a blinding cold wind.
Thubron naturally runs into people predisposed toward him by their hopes or earlier connections. One bricklayer, for instance, says his father was a Cambridge University graduate. Someone new always turns up, and a reader’s overall impression is kaleidoscopic—salesmen are enterprising, consumers and people in business complain of corruption, intellectuals feel frustrated, and some patriots are ashamed of Mao. Unlike journalists assigned to cover the power holders, Thubron the traveler meets mainly little people as he sleeps next to farmers on the floor of a train or runs into a student in a tea shop.
Always the great enigma is the Cultural Revolution. How could the Chinese have been so cruel, so inhumane? How could so many hundreds of thousands of people have been beaten, jailed, forced to do exhausting labor in the countryside? Nobody ventures the explanation that when the sanctions of social order and propriety are removed, in a society so accustomed to conformity as the Chinese, a peasant people can be very destructive of the upper class and its culture. This deserves a moment’s attention. Many Chinese were functionally literate under the empire, but the degree holders and officials of the upper class were set apart by their classical learning, and moreover they had been recruited early on by the state and served as the enforcers of Confucianism. Once modern learning had undermined the Confucian teaching, the Maoist revolution could be mounted against it and so the glue was melted out of the old society. The latent anti-intellectualism of the preponderant lower class could quickly be combined with the xenophobia that is natural in the heartland of an enormous country.
With a touch of anarchist egalitarianism the Maoist Red Guards could undertake the destruction of things foreign and things intellectual. The secret was that the Chinese people had always accepted the ruler’s authority (if not, a prudent ruler would kill them) and when Mao provided the sanction, destruction could go forward. The Red Guards, to be sure, were students, not peasants, but Mao fostered peasant standards, belittled learning, spurned foreign things, and gave the peasant an entrance into politics. Cruelty is inescapable in the life of poor peasants—witness the peasant wife who gives birth to a daughter her family cannot afford and has to drown it. Against the background of China’s long history, the Cultural Revolution’s cruelty is perhaps less strange.
Nevertheless it hit upper-class intellectuals with particular force. For one thing under the empire the degree-holding literati were a privileged elite exempt from corporal punishment. Their degradation by the modern psychological and physical barbarities of the police state has been a new thing and a special shock, seeming evidence of a Chinese pathology, at the least a national shame. Mao had turned the tables on them.
The Legalist methods of imperial Confucianism had trained Chinese to inform on family, friends, and neighbors. This prolonged training gave the cowed and passive citizen of modern China a special Chinese taint, an inbred complicity in authoritarian injustice. It is a disgraceful blemish on the national image. Other peoples may have comparable failings today, but they are not comparable to the exemplary, once-superior elite of China. Americans may face their special dilemma, how to sustain freedom without succumbing to greed. But Chinese have a multiheaded dilemma that keeps cropping up everywhere—how to reconcile China’s current failings with its superior inheritance.
March 16, 1989
An interview with Liu Binyan appeared in The New York Review of Books January 19, 1989, and an article by Fang Lizhi in the February 2, 1989, issue. ↩
See Lucian Pye, The Mandarin and the Cadre: China’s Political Cultures (University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1988), p. 31. ↩
From Sun Longji, “The Deep Structure of Chinese Culture.” ↩